Chechen arrested over Paris Olympics attack plot: ministry

Pedestrians holding umbrellas walk past the temporary venue under construction for the upcoming Paris 2024 Olympic Games, closed to the Place du Trocadero, with the Eiffel Tower in the back, in Paris, on May 31, 2024. (Photo by Sami KARAALI / AFP)

By Shahzad ABDUL and Adam PLOWRIGHT

PARIS, May 31, 2024 (AFP) – French security services have arrested a Chechen teenager suspected of plotting an “Islamist-inspired” attack on a football game during the Paris Olympic Games in July and August, the interior ministry said Friday.

The DGSI domestic intelligence agency “arrested a 18-year-old of Chechen origin in Saint-Etienne” in southeast France on May 22, the ministry said, calling it the “first foiled attack against the Olympic Games”.

France is on its highest alert level for attacks ahead of the Paris Games, when around 10 million visitors and 10,000 athletes are expected.

The sport is set to take place mostly in the capital, but other towns and cities around France will also host some disciplines as well as individual games.

The arrested Chechen was suspected of “actively preparing an attack against the Geoffroy-Guichard stadium [in Saint-Etienne] during the football games that will take place there,” the interior ministry said.

“He intended to attack spectators but also security forces and die as a martyr,” the statement added.

He was charged on Sunday with terrorist conspiracy and is in pre-trial detention, the national anti-terror prosecutor’s office said in a statement to AFP.

The suspected plot could set nerves jangling in France, where organisers have faced persistent questions about the risk of an attack that would seriously tarnish the world’s biggest sporting event.

An offshoot of the Islamic State group, believed to be behind a vicious attack on a Moscow concert hall in March, is known to have threatened attacks in France.

“We applaud the efficiency of the (law enforcement) services and their exceptional mobilisation to ensure the security of the Games,” the Paris organising committee said in a statement. “Security is the number one priority for Paris 2024.”

Six football games are set to take place in Saint-Etienne, an industrial town of roughly 200,000 people about an hour’s drive west of Lyon.

They begin on July 24 with Argentina versus Morocco in the men’s competition, and include a game between the French women’s team and Canada on July 28.

– France as target –

Concerns about the Paris Games have focused on the opening ceremony on July 26 that will take place over a six-kilometre (four-mile) stretch of the river Seine, the first time a summer Olympics has begun outside the athletics stadium.

Policing such a vast area of the capital will be a huge challenge, with 45,000 officers set to be on duty and large swathes of the centre out of bounds for everyone except ticket holders and local residents.

France has been repeatedly targeted by Islamist attackers over the past decade, often by individuals inspired by Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State group.

Three terror plots have been prevented since the start of the year and 50 since 2017, according to the interior ministry.

Lucas Webber, co-founder of the Militant Wire research network, told AFP that the Islamic State (IS) group, including its Khorasan offshoot in Afghanistan and Pakistan (ISKP), had “launched a new propaganda campaign to threaten and incite direct attacks against sporting events in Europe”.

“ISKP has led these efforts and called upon followers to carry out violent acts against the Olympics in France and the UEFA European Championship in Germany,” he said

Last October, a radicalised 20-year-old Chechen who had sworn allegiance to IS killed a teacher in the northern French town of Arras.

In October 2020, another teenage Chechen extremist, who had come to France as a refugee, beheaded a teacher in a suburb northwest of Paris, shocking the country.

The traditional Olympic torch relay is currently underway in France, with the flame on a 12,000-kilometre trip surrounded by a “security bubble” of 100 officers including anti-drone specialists and anti-terror police.

A total of 78 people were arrested for trying to disrupt the relay and 30 suspect drones were intercepted during the first three weeks, according to the interior ministry.

The Olympics have been attacked in the past — most infamously in 1972 in Munich and in 1996 in Atlanta — with the thousands of athletes, huge crowds and live global television audience making it a target.